After dark: An introspective Afrosociopolitical narrative

By Josh Odam

Josh Odam speaking at the Rally Against Racism in October of last year. (Alec Zabrecky/Daily Collegian)
Josh Odam speaking at the Rally Against Racism in October of last year. (Alec Zabrecky/Daily Collegian)

Author’s Note: I want to thank my femtors, mentors and friends, Professor Zelaya, Professor Duncan, Manuel, VQ, Jazz and Maija for showing me how important it is to be unapologetic as a Black body.

“Growth demands a temporary surrender of security. It may mean giving up familiar but limiting patterns, safe but unrewarding work, values no longer believed in and relationships that have lost their meaning.” – John C. Maxwell

Organizing, just like consciousness-building, is labor. It is work which demands and requires constant self-evaluation. In a commitment to real scholarship, my objective is to review the five works I submitted last semester, reexamine the ideas which I no longer subscribe to and expound upon the points which I hold true. Next year, I plan on re-critiquing these pieces to further track my growth as an organizer, as an intellectual worker and as a human being.

Fall of 2014 was the most tumultuous and mentally taxing semester of my collegiate career so far. I would use the word “maelstrom” as a descriptor, but it would not do it justice. As a result of my work with the United States Student Association and former work in the University of Massachusetts Student Government Association, I was able to travel to Ferguson, Missouri during the “Weekend of Resistance” in honor of Michael Brown. My time there was exhausting, yet fulfilling.

We were greeted with open arms by our host who lived five minutes outside of the greater St. Louis area, nearly twenty minutes from Ferguson. I have never felt comfort and tranquility in the midst of anger and deep-seeded turmoil like I experienced at Ms. Owens’ home. She did everything for us, from arming us with milk and scarves to deal with tear gas, to leading a convoy into Shaw, Missouri at 10 p.m. for a protest.

I can vividly remember traveling to Shaw for a night protest directly after leaving South Florissant Road. We had to park the cars three blocks away because police were stationed at the intersections surrounding the corner where Vonderrit Myers was killed. We had to traverse through back alleys in order to reach the rendezvous point where the march would begin. I could not get over the eerie hush that swept through the neighborhood. I was speaking to my comrade who was five feet in front of me and my voice carried to the next block over. Granted it was 12:30 a.m., but there were no cars, no horns blaring, no leaves rustling in the wind, no light in the windows and no signs of life. The trepidation turned into fear as the march began.

The harsh silence and bleak darkness transformed into deafening roars and blinding light as I was overcome by chanting, screaming, helicopters hovering overhead, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles tearing through civilian neighborhoods, spotlights beaming, sirens flashing, police shouting orders to disperse, pepper spray hissing as it released from canisters, and heavily militarized officers brandishing and pointing assault rifles, cracking their batons against their shields. I was afraid. I was afraid and Ms. Owens held me as I struggled to process.

I was able to learn from an elder who lived in the city. Alongside her, I bore witness to such chaos unfolding seemingly at her doorstep. Yet, she approached the murders of Brown and Myers with a refined and controlled fury, affirming our rage with precautionary wisdom. Her insight was like a family heirloom. It was inherited from her elders, and she passed it on to us. She understood that we, as Black bodies, are never allowed to be truly innocent, so she made it her business to provide us with comfort and love while we were in her presence. I can only describe it as an aura of stillness and peace not felt since my childhood. I value Ms. Owens because in the midst of confusion and piercing pain, she gave me the gift of vulnerability. She was the conduit to a level of consciousness previously unearthed – the ability to be afraid, anxious, uneasy, not only as a Black body in Ferguson, but as a Black being in an anti-Black world.

Ms. Owens’ wisdom came at the time when I needed it most. Upon my return from Ferguson, the University of Massachusetts campus was infested by a series of racially charged hate-crimes which left the words, “Kill These N*****s” written on my dorm room door in black ink. Further investigation revealed my door was one of at least six racist attacks throughout the week.

The fact that I was the acting secretary of diversity of the SGA led to people galvanizing around me with an intensity which, in my opinion, would not have been as exhibited if I was a woman, queer, gender non-conforming, not involved on campus or anything which went against the “acceptable” depiction of what a leader in the Black liberation movement should look like. But I was. I was what the movement has always looked like. The SGA appointed a solitary, Black, tall, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual, middle-class guy with big Black boots and a stoic disposition to handle anything and everything pertaining to Black and Brown folks at a predominately white institution. The various components of my identity – the wages connected with my maleness, my sexuality, my size, my dark complexion, my scholarship – deemed me worthy of lionizing, worthy of writing about, worthy of support, worthy of exalting my narrative.

To reiterate, organizing is labor. Every time I spoke, wrote or answered questions about my experiences, it was labor. I was catapulted into the spotlight for public consumption and I hated every moment of it. The onslaught of speaking engagements was enough to make me sick of hearing my own voice. Although I considered it to be my responsibility to engage in these discussions as often as possible, I understand now it was exploitative in all forms and a manifestation of a longstanding tradition of Black and Brown people being doubly exploited at and by primarily white institutions.

When I saw the death threat on my door, I thought about the people I met in Ferguson – the people who are being targeted, brutalized, victimized and killed at the hands of the state who then labor, for free, in order to shine a light on the political and economic systems designed to destroy them. I sometimes wonder if I was meant to go to Ferguson, to stay with Ms. Owens, so I would be prepared to handle this upon my return.

If there was a silver lining to all of the interviews, questioning and hypervisibility, it was bearing witness to people realizing the power and agency they possessed. When I say power, I speak to the ability to visualize, define and actualize their own reality. Witnessing my peers tap into that power is a feeling I cannot readily describe.

I say all this to state unequivocally that I have grown exponentially since the day that vandal tried to tear the Harambee community asunder. It sometimes brings me pause to think about the long journey I have taken in a relatively short period of time. To reference the earlier quote, my journey is one which demands a daily struggle. In these last 18 months, I have organized, have been organized, reevaluated my role in our movement, marched for miles and stood in solidarity with survivors of police terror. Do not allow me to sway you though – I have dropped the ball on more than one occasion, failed to capitalize on critical organizing moments, neglected to interrupt oppressive behavior, been tokenized, co-opted, lost friends, found a family, sacrificed my political capital, my safety, my security, have been surrounded by SWAT teams, dogs, dense clouds of tear gas, assaulted, accosted, taken up too much space, not enough space, burned bridges, spoken with my heroes, sheroes, political prisoners, vanguards, respectable negroes, die-hards, read, wrote, delegated, demonstrated, battled the oppressor within, released organized religion and somehow in the end, became closer with God.

Please do not misunderstand. This is not an attempt to canonize myself, stroke my ego nor romanticize the struggle. However, I need you to know this work is real and it is not comfortable. In fact, our job is antithetical to comfort. Going against the status quo is never easy, it should not be. This lifestyle – and it is a lifestyle – is a daily fight in which you are called upon to sacrifice your capital – be it political, social or otherwise – in order to interrupt and fight against the various forms of oppressions which are designed to destroy us. Accepting this fate means I understand that your liberation as a woman, a woman of color, a queer woman of color, a trans woman, a trans man, a working class person, a nonconforming person, a person living with disabilities, an immigrant, an incarcerated person, a brother, a sister or a person of the global majority, is inherently and indisputably intertwined with my liberation.

I am named Josh Odam. I am 19 years old. I am Black. I am angry. I am angry, justifiably, shamelessly and unmistakably. I will not hide it. I accept it, I embrace it. I wear my rage boldly and proudly like the watch on my wrist or the boots on my feet or the pieces around my neck. My anger stems from love – my love for Black and Brown people will always supersede my hatred of white supremacy. To be clear, my anger is cultivated in the fact that I and other people of the global majority are not loved within this white supremacist state. The transnational ideology of anti-Blackness reminds us we are somehow not deserving of love. Instead, we are worthy of nothing but contempt, disdain, derision, isolation, incarceration and systematic extermination of our minds, bodies and souls.

My anger has forced me to remove things from my space – people, objects, ideas and words. I needed to do away with one word in particular – tolerance. I know this may draw the ire of those who get doe-eyed over the idea of living in a “post-racial” society – as foolish of a concept that is – but let me explain. Tolerance implies condition; to tolerate is to put up with something or someone conditionally until you have the opportunity to exit the situation. I will not merely be tolerated in this life. I refuse to accept that for myself, my family, my children or their children. I do not need you to tolerate me; I need you to love me. Unconditionally, unapologetically, unabashedly love me. I need you to love me as intensely as I love myself. Until then, the majority of our efforts to attain self-determination and liberation will be phony.

My ideas are strong because I am strong. They were forged under immense stress and pressure. The journey I have embarked on over the last 18 months has allowed me to tap into a level of fortitude previously unknown. If I have not lost you by now, let us walk together so that you may love me, and I you.

Josh Odam is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]